Performing arts center continues to ignite controversy with faculty

Steeped in controversy since its announcement, the new theater and dance complex continues to provoke debate among the faculty and administration.

“Every time the subject comes up, there is a lot of concern expressed,” Associate Professor of English Alison Case said. “I don’t want to speak for the faculty in general, but my sense is that a lot of people are uncomfortable about this building.”

“My impression is that a majority of the faculty are very concerned about aspects of the project,” Brown Professor of History and Chair of the department William Wagner said.

Wagner is also the chair of the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR), which is in charge of advising the College on how best to invest its financial resources according to the capital plan. “The committee, as a committee, has been concerned from the moment the project was announced,” Wagner said.

One sensitive issue is the process by which Herbert Allen’s ’62 original $20 million donation was earmarked for a new dance and theater complex. “The committee hasn’t been involved in the process as extensively as it should have been,” Wagner said.

Steve Birrell, Vice President for Alumni Relations and Development, who is currently in charge of the Allen donation, acknowledged this concern. “I recognize that this gift evolved quickly, and the normal sort of process that goes with academic planning wasn’t observed as fully as it might have been,” Birrell said.

As a result, the project’s accordance with the College’s capital plan is questionable. “Part of the capital plan was to re-model the Adams Memorial Theater (AMT) and the dance complex in Lasell, but we’re talking about a completely different magnitude,” Wagner said. “What concerns us is not so much that we don’t think we need these spaces, because we do, and if the process had allowed input at the beginning instead of the end, we may have come to the same conclusions.”

Although it seems the donation would cover the costs of the building, thus not affecting capital spending, Case explained that annual maintenance costs plus projected long-term costs are expected to total roughly 4.5 percent of the construction cost. “Even if the $30 million dollars is given to us, it sequesters $30 million of our endowment,” she said. “This is not a cheap gift. This is not a free gift.”

“We have to commit a substantial amount of income from the endowment for maintenance and staffing,” Wagner said. “There doesn’t seem to have been a careful calculation of the effect of this building on other projects. Should we be giving this amount of money to this or to other things?” According to Wagner, this is a questions that many faculty members have also raised.

Birrell defended the project’s accordance with the capital plan. “Certainly in the case of theater and dance, we did have a need identified in the capital plan,” he said. Birrell credited Allen for simply conceiving of a “bolder vision” for improvements to the dance and theater facilities.

For Wagner and Case, this is another sticking point. According to Case, Allen has mandated a 625-seat auditorium and an independent director for the complex. Case said Allen is rumored to have made an additional gift of $10 million contingent upon his requests.

“Once you get into that sort of policy, you have donors imposing structure on the College, which is concerning,” Wagner said.

Case said she worries the priorities of the donor are not in accord with the academic goals of the College. According to Case, Allen has criticized the faculty at times. As a result, Case questions Allen’s priorities.

“My main concern is to be sure that the design staff and the director of the building should give priority to curricular needs,” Case said. “The donor’s desire to have a director independent of those departments concerns me.”

An Atypical Donation

Birrell conceded that Allen’s donation was somewhat atypical. “Generally our fundraising proceeds from the College defining a particular need and then asking the Development Office to go after it,” he said. However, he said sometimes donors have specific agendas, and the Development Office works to mesh the donor’s interests with the College’s needs.

Furthermore, Birrell said the College fully understood the conditions of the gift when it was accepted. “There was inevitably a certain amount of planning and process, which is a little different from other gifts, but was due to the boldness of the plan,” he said.

As for the leverage of another $10 million donation, Birrell said Allen has made no formal commitments. “Mr. Allen’s commitment was for $20 million. That commitment has been met. Both the College and Mr. Allen can expect to continue conversations as the project develops,” Birrell said.

Birrell’s reassurances may not allay faculty concerns. “I’m still not convinced that the College is getting what it needs out of this,” Case said.

On the other hand, some professors are more concerned that the College is fulfilling its needs at the expense of the community. “Unfortunately this is the opportunity for a small group of people—the trustees, the architects, the planning committee, etc.—to impose their aesthetic tastes on the community,” Williams Brough Professor of Economics Roger Bolton said.

Bolton also expressed concern about the center’s location on Spring Street. “It seems like possibly the wrong scale,” he said. “I’m more concerned myself with the relations with the community and the possible visual effects,” he said.

“Presumably the exact site–how close it will be to Spring Street–will be announced when the scale of the building is determined,” he said.

He expressed optimism that faculty concerns would be weighed more heavily as the plans are finalized. “Now I’m content with the process of sharing information. I think that [President of the College Carl] Vogt has been much better at this than [former president of the College Harry Payne] was,” Bolton said.

Case, Wagner and Birrell also commended Vogt. “I think that Carl Vogt is serious, a good listener and that he takes faculty concerns seriously, and that’s encouraging,” agreed Case.

“I think President Vogt, to his credit, has acknowledged that those are legitimate concerns [about the process], and has implied that it won’t happen again,” Wagner said.

Birrell agreed, “I do think that President Vogt is doing a really excellent job.”

Birrell also urged greater enthusiasm about the gift: “A gift of this size and the statement it makes about the confidence the donor has in the College and the opportunity it affords the College to move forward quite boldly is just wonderful. A gift of this size sets a whole new standard of giving to Williams.”